Right Hand of Fellowship
The Right Hand of Fellowship is a ritual intended to welcome a new member into the fellowship of a congregation or welcoming a new minister into the fellowship of ministers. It is based on Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 2 verse 9, where Paul says that three disciples of Jesus "gave me and Barnabas their right hands of fellowship" (Greek: δεξὰς ἔδωκαν ἐμοὶ καὶ Βαρναβᾷ κοινωνίας), bonding them together as members of the new Christian church. John Stott follows the New English Bible in suggesting that the phrase means the other apostles "accepted Barnabas and myself as partners, and shook hands upon it." Herman Ridderbos, however, believes that the "giving of right hands represents more than a reciprocal acknowledgment or testimony of friendship: it suggests rather a covenant."
Interpreters reading Galatians 2:9 from a social-scientific perspective, thus considering the text in its 1st Century Mediterranean context, understand the gesture of James, Cephas, and John "extending the right hand of fellowship" to be a condescending gesture toward Paul and Barnabas. On this reading, the three Jerusalem apostles assert their superiority over Paul by offering a truce (end to hostilities) since, in that time and place, "extending the right hand" was not a gesture between equals. If this is correct, then the "right hand of fellowship" as it was iterated by Paul, reflects the disputatious character of early, emerging Christianity, and which came to a head (at least as far as Paul was concerned) as described in the "Incident at Antioch" (cf. Galatians 2:11-14).
The Right Hand of Christian Fellowship is a practice performed by many sects of Christianity as an extension of brotherhood into the church. When a person who has experienced salvation desires to join a church, the current members determine whether he or she is eligible. Some groups like the Old Time Missionary Baptists take an actual vote throughout its members. If the person is deemed eligible, then the church then extends the Right Hand of Christian Fellowship as an act of acceptance. This is typically done by having the person shake the right hand of every current member of the church.
Among the Congregational clergy of Puritan New England a new minister undergoing ordination, after he was called by the voting members of the church and submitted to the laying on of hands by ministers and sometimes lay elders of neighboring congregations, was often extended the right hand of fellowship by a prominent clergymen to formally seal his acceptance of the ministerial office.
The Right Hand of Fellowship can be used as a weekly greeting, similar to the passing of the peace used in liturgical churches.
Additionally, the Right Hand of Fellowship can be viewed as merely an expression of good faith and morals. In this scenario, there is less of a literal sense to the right hand.
- Stott, John R. W. (1971). The Message of Galatians. London: InterVarsity Press. p. 46.
- Ridderbos, Herman (1961). The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p. 90.
- Esler, Philip F. (1998). Galatians. Routledge: New York. p. 133. See also Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch (2006). Social-Scientific Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Fortress Press: Minneapolis. p. 195.
- Boynton, George Mills (1903). The Congregational way: a hand-book of Congregational principles and practices. The Pilgrim Press. p. 163.
- Williams, J.W.T (1974). "Congregational Clericalism: New England Ordinations Before the Great Awakening". William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 3.
- Principles and Practices: The Congregational Way of the Churches of the National Association by Lloyd M. Hall, Jr. & Karl D. Schimpf